BALTIMORE (AP) — Yet another embarrassing chapter in Baltimore’s troubled history ended Thursday when the city’s ex-mayor was sentenced to three years in federal prison for fraudulently selling her self-published children’s books to nonprofit organizations to promote her political career.
Catherine Pugh accepted “full responsibility” for her actions and apologized through tears during the roughly 10 minutes she spoke in federal court in Baltimore before she was sentenced. The veteran Democratic politician said that “no one is more disappointed than me” and added that she did not want to bring “any more shame” to the city.
“I think the first thing I should do is apologize to the citizens of Baltimore who put their faith and trust in me as their mayor, and to all the people who put their faith and trust in me as state senator and as delegate,” Pugh said outside the courthouse afterward.
The scandal shook Maryland’s largest city, which for years has struggled with grinding poverty, political mismanagement, record crime rates and police abuses that led to massive riots. And it made a mockery of Pugh’s inaugural promise to restore trust in Baltimore’s leaders.
Pugh, who turns 70 next week, was elected mayor in 2016 and resigned under pressure in May as authorities investigated bulk sales of her “Healthy Holly” paperbacks, which netted her hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Federal authorities accused her of double selling the books, keeping many for self-promotion purposes and failing to deliver them to institutions they were purchased for, including the Baltimore City Public Schools. Pugh used the proceeds to fund straw donations to her mayoral campaign and buy a new house.
Pugh was also sentenced Thursday to serve three years of supervised release after getting out of prison. She was ordered to pay more than $411,000 in restitution and to forfeit more than $669,000 to the government.
The disgraced former mayor pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy and tax evasion charges in November. She will be notified by April 13 when she must surrender and begin her sentence.
“She had no qualms to use any means necessary to win the mayoral election,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Clarke said during the sentencing hearing.
Prosecutors had asked U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow to sentence the former mayor to nearly five years in prison, while her attorneys suggested a term of one year and a day.
Prior to the hearing, a visibly stressed Pugh teared up when she turned around in her seat and saw friends and others sitting in the packed courtroom. Her attorney, Steven Silverman, handed her a box of tissues and briefly rubbed her back.
Dozens of people submitted letters to Chasanow pleading for leniency, including Kweisi Mfume, the former NAACP leader and Democratic nominee for Maryland’s 7th Congressional District. Five people spoke in support of Pugh during the hearing, including her former high school teacher.
But Chasanow said she found it ironic that Pugh’s supporters stressed her commitment to public service because “it was precisely that reputation for good work that enabled her to commit those offenses.”
“I have yet frankly to hear any explanation that makes sense,” Chasanow said. “This was not a tiny mistake, lapse of judgment. This became a very large fraud. The nature and circumstances of this offense clearly I think are extremely, extremely serious.”
Baltimore City Council President Brandon M. Scott called the sentencing “a somber moment for Baltimore,” saying in a written statement that Pugh’s acts “seriously undermined the public’s trust in our local government.”
“This moment reminds us that, as elected officials, we have one job: to serve the people, period,” Scott said.
Pugh, helped by longtime aide Gary Brown Jr., carefully carried out the “Healthy Holly” scheme over more than seven years, starting when she was a Maryland state senator and into her tenure as Baltimore’s mayor. Brown and another Pugh associate, Roslyn Wedington, await sentencing after pleading guilty to conspiracy and tax fraud.
A detailed accounting of the sales presented by prosecutors in their sentencing memorandum showed that organizations paid Pugh $859,960 for orders of more than 132,100 copies. But only about 73,200 copies were printed. Prosecutors said Pugh’s personal inventory of books never exceeded 8,216 copies, but she resold them repeatedly through the elaborate scheme.
The University of Maryland Medical System — one of the state’s largest employers — was Pugh’s biggest book customer. The system is slated to get $400,000 of the restitution Pugh was ordered to pay. Another book buyer, the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, is expected to get about $11,000.
The medical system paid Pugh a total of $500,000 for 100,000 copies that were meant to be distributed to schoolchildren, but about 60,000 of those books were sent to a city warehouse and a Pugh office where thousands were removed to give to other customers. Prosecutors say Pugh never delivered the other 40,000 books the health system purchased for city schools.
While serving in the state Senate, Pugh sat on a committee that funded the medical system. She also sat on the hospital network’s board from 2001 until the scandal erupted in March. Pugh returned the last $100,000 payment.
Pugh still faces a state perjury charge for failing to include her ownership of Healthy Holly LLC in financial disclosure forms filed with the Maryland State Ethics Commission. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
By REGINA GARCIA CANO
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